Communicating new evidence through working papers and briefs

Written by: Olivia Frost

Through in-depth, interdisciplinary, comparative research across nine countries, the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) has generated high-quality evidence and policy-relevant insights on more inclusive pathways to agricultural commercialisation. To disseminate its research findings and policy messages, APRA had a multi-format strategy to produce a portfolio of mutually-reinforcing publications to inform a broad spectrum of actors. APRA ICE Insight 3 evaluates APRA’s publication outputs to understand what went well, and to identify what improvements could have been made.

Production of APRA outputs was supported by the Information, Communication and Engagement (ICE) team, which – after internal and external review – took responsibility for style and editing and, to some extent, content coherence. To maintain a consistent style across all APRA publications, researchers were provided with an APRA ‘style guide’ which, in addition to providing general writing style points, also covered the use of the APRA logo and images, information on referencing, and copyrights and gaining the correct permissions for tables and figures.

All Working Papers, Policy Briefs and Research Notes were published in a PDF format and were freely accessible on the APRA website, as well as the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) OpenDocs website. After publication, APRA teams were encouraged to write a short blog to reflect the key messages of the paper in more accessible language, so as to be relevant and understandable to a wider audience. These were then included in APRA newsletters regularly sent to stakeholders, as well as disseminated via Twitter and Facebook.

APRA researchers emphasised how helpful the ICE team’s support was in promoting publications. ‘The support and services provided [by ICE] were exemplary,’ noted Dawit Alemu, APRA Ethiopia country lead. An external review of APRA’s publications also highlighted that ‘the quality and reach of publications has been significantly enhanced by support from the ICE team, who were available throughout the programme and highly valued by the Africa-based research teams.’

Overall, APRA researchers highlighted ICE’s thorough editing when asked what went well in APRA’s publication process. ‘The process for publishing is very meticulous and rigorous’, stated Hannington Odame, APRA regional hub coordinator for East Africa. Yet, while APRA’s extensive review process added to the rigour of outputs, it also took a considerable amount of time to complete and a great deal of admin time to manage. Some researchers raised the issue of time constraints, stating that more time to complete the publication process would have been better. Others felt that a ‘focus on fewer things for higher impact delivery’ would have been beneficial. ‘Reduce the number of working papers and increase the number of briefs and blogs, so people with limited time can quickly get the message,’ suggested Ntengua Mdoe, APRA researcher in East Africa.

Another challenge was that despite circulating a detailed APRA Style Guide document to all researchers on several occasions, many maintained the style with which they were most familiar, particularly when it came to referencing. Researchers also found producing overarching briefs challenging – and the final outputs often required completely revising and several rounds of redrafts by the ICE team.

Key lessons

Maintaining standards and assuring quality: Providing detailed guidelines, as well as an appropriate technical procedure for quality assurance, and ensuring researchers know where to access these, is key to producing quality outputs.

Ensuring consistent referencing: To reduce the burden on researchers and editors, a key recommendation would be to purchase a licence for automatic referencing software for the programme (e.g., Endnote, Mendeley, etc.) and provide training on how to use it.

Strengthening capacity: Providing training on how to write Policy Briefs at the start of APRA and having a dedicated team of policy experts to review each brief and provide feedback would have provided researchers with more support, and strengthened the final policy messages. Although APRA organised several ‘writeshops’ for its research teams to produce and review draft outputs, more investment could be made in these intensive, peer-to-peer learning and writing sessions at key points in the paper production process.